Eric Pomisel, who owns Nesconset-based GroKind Organics, is a self-professed organic crusader.
Like many landscapers on Long Island, Pomisel started out using chemical and synthetic products when he launched his career more than 20 years ago.
That all changed in 1989, when Pomisel had a severe physical reaction to a chemical he was working with called Tercum, a commonly used pesticide.
"I was pouring it and some of it quaffed into my face, and I immediately started gagging," he said. An alarm went off in his head. "I threw the bag down, finished out my day and decided I wanted to quit landscaping."
At the urgining of his father, Pomisel decided that instead of throwing in the towel, he would reinvent his business. That's when he discovered organic landscaping, which he's been practicing ever since.
Through organic landscaping, Pomisel aims to transform the makeup of the soil and create a self-sustaining ecosystem on every property he cultivates. During the first year, he usually applies seeds and natural compost a few times, and occasionally aerates the soil. For the most part, nature takes care of the rest, he says.
Many of the properties that Pomisel works on do not require fertilizer applications of even an irrigation system. In fact, he says that organic lawns without irrigation systems are usually the ones that do the best, since many homeowners and irrigation comapnies tend to drown their lawns.
Pomisel also takes care to not cut lawns too short, as thick lawns with tall grass help to choke out weeds and retain rainfall.
According to Pomisel, the transition from synthetic to organic requires patience, as it takes more than a year for the chemicals and nitrates used in synthetic lawn products to leach through the soil.
Its difficult to measure exactly how long it takes for a lawn to become chemical-free, though Pomisel knows of a spot where water samples in nearby wells have tested positive for chemicals that have been used as far as 20 years back.
However, Pomisel added that it's not the chemicals that homeowners are usually concerned about—it's the weeds.
“Many people can’t handle weeds," he said. "If they could look past just the aesthetic, they could have a healthier lawn and help the environment. Most of them can't accept weeds in exchange for a better overall product.”
Pomisel likens chemically treated lawns — those which have been pumped with growth enhancers and sythetic fertilizers for years — to drug addicts. When lawns begin the transition from checmical to organic, they tend to go into a withdrawal period, and sprout weeds and crabgrass.
That can be upsetting to homeowners who are accustomed to the manicured, weed-free appearance of chemically-treated lawns.
Pomisel tries to mitigate customers' concerns by taking an up-front approach and warning them to expect some weeds. "Some people in the industry call that economic suicide, but I like to be honest with my clients," he says.
Still, Pomisel says he loses customers every year because of weeds.
“It’s a tough nut to swallow, and its very discouraging. Sometimes I want to quit," he said
"But then I think: If I don't do this, who will?"
Pomisel continues to be driven by his passion, although he admits he could make more money by using chemical products, simply because they're cheaper.
He says that although organic products have come down in price in recent years, they're still more expensive than their synthetic counterparts. He pays about $28 to $45 per bag for organic fertilizer, which typically covers 5,000 to 6,500 sq. ft. of turf. Chemical fertilizers, on the other hand, cost about $15 to $20 per bag and cover much more turf—anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 sq. ft.
Despite the steep costs for organic prodcuts, Pomisel cannot afford to charge customers much more than competing landscaping companies.
“I have to stay competitive with these guys or I’m going to price myself out of the market," he says.
Companies like GroKind Organics also face stiff competition from landscapers who pay employees off the books, or fail to get proper certifications and licenses.
"They cut corners and don't play fair," Pomisel says.
Pomisel has also been forced to come to terms with harsh reality of the economic downturn: Some customers just don't have the money.
"People are on a budget, and I understand that," he says.
He estimates that in the past year alone, he's lost one-third of his client base simply because they can no longer afford a landscape service.
Despite this, Pomisel says he keeps going because he has a responsibility not only to his wife and two young children, but to his three crew members, who depend on him for income. "In these times, I run a tight ship," he says. "I'm just trying to survive."
Pomisel believes the key to keeping his business alive is through constant reinvention, whether through continued maintenance on properties, or branching out into stonework. He also continues advocate for his organic philosophy and educate new customers who share his vision of chemical-free landscaping on Long Island.
“[My crew and I] call ourselves gardeners and horticulturists, not landscapers. We transform the soil below the grass, and we solve problems without chemicals." he said. “Many clients admire what I do, and are willing to make the commitment.”
The customers who share his passion, he says, are the ones that remain loyal and ultimately reap the greatest benefits of his services.
“I like people who do their homework. They get it. They stick it out. I don’t like customers who think it’s a gimmick or a trend.”